James, (Baroness James of Holland Park, P.D.)

P.D. James

Elected: 1987

Year of birth: 1920

Year of death: 2014

Image credit: Ulla Montan

Phyllis Dorothy James, born August 3 1920, was one of England’s most prolific and accomplished crime writers. Her first novel, published in 1962, was called Cover Her Face and featured the poet and detective Adam Dalgleish, who was to become her best known hero. Her books sold millions of copies and several were adapted for television and film.

Outside of her writing, she served as a board member of the British council, and chairman of the literary panel of the Arts Council. Appointed OBE in 1983, she was made a life peer as Lady James of Holland Park in 1991.

Author of Obituary: Maggie Fergusson

Obituary :

A few years back, Colin Thubron invited P.D. James to lunch at his home. She had never before met Colin’s wife, Margreta, and she greeted her warmly. ‘Well dear,’ she said, ‘I must tell you that I have always thought your husband the most handsome man in London.’

That moment encapsulated something essential about Phyllis: a matter-of-fact down-to-earthness shot through with extraordinary charm.

I met her first over twenty years ago, when I arrived to work for the RSL in its old headquarters in Hyde Park Gardens. She was on the Council, and John Mortimer, our Chairman, made no bones about the fact that she was his favourite. ‘She ought to be running the country,’ he used to say.

Evening events in those days were rather muted affairs. It wasn’t unusual to have an audience of fewer than ten, all advanced in years, heavily wrapped in coats and scarves. Hyde Park Gardens was always chilly – the only source of heat a mobile gas heater which belched flames.

At one of these events, Phyllis chaired a discussion about censorship. When it came to questions from the floor, Elma Dangerfield, Secretary of the Byron Society, raised her hand. ‘Would the panel agree that the reason the younger generation achieve so little is that they spend too much time copulating?’ Phyllis immediately rose to the occasion. She’d had plenty of enjoyment in that department herself, she said, but had also written a good number of books.

As the RSL began to venture gingerly into the 21st century, she backed us all the way. She instituted our Patron Fellows scheme, and she was excited when we told her we were beginning to send some of our most distinguished Fellows into struggling state secondary schools. Without hesitation, she offered to visit schools herself. She’d like to visit a school once, she said, get to know the pupils, and suggest some reading to
them. Then she’d like to go back, and see how they’d got on. So this is what she did.

The children loved her. I like to think they appreciated that, for all her grand title, Baroness James of Holland Park was fully invested in their futures, and that she herself had not had an easy life. And I like to think that they recognised that she was someone who practised what she preached.

She used her position in the Lords to effect a great deal of good. She was, for example, largely responsible for the law enabling adopted children to trace their blood parents. But she was as generous in private as in public. One evening she fell into conversation with a cab driver. He told her that his daughter wanted to come to London to train to be a nurse, but that rents were prohibitive. By the time they reached Phyllis’s dark-green-fronted house in Holland Park, it was settled. The girl would come to live with her, on a peppercorn rent.

This was one of many stories she told us over that memorable lunch at Colin’s house. When four o’clock struck, we were still sitting at the table. ‘I suppose I ought to be going,’ Phyllis said, ‘but I’m having such a lovely time.’ So we sat on, as the light ebbed. We were all as eager as she to keep chatting. We did not want her to go.

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Richard Holmes

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Fellowship Election Process​

Fellows are nominated by peers and elected by our Council of writers – our governing Board. Being elected a Fellow of the RSL is a lifetime honour. This role gives them the opportunity to support other writers, readers and the future of literature. The RSL connects writers in the Fellowship to one another, and to a wider readership.